I have had two moments of discovery in the last few days.  One came from something I read and the other insight emerged from looking back on experiences of a couple of years ago.

Why try?  I read something recently that touched a nerve.  I am not exactly sure why it did.  Guesses include the frustration of returning to last year’s unrealized first-of-year intentions as I look ahead to 2013 and then the seeming futility in trying to deal with society’s penchant for violence so horrifyingly displayed in recent weeks.  What I read used the Artist Vincent Van Gogh as an example of someone with the resilience to endure in the face of the demons that persecuted him all his life, determined in his last years to rise above them.   His life was filled with illness, physical and mental, episodes of depression.  He was in and out of an asylum, seeking help to deal with those demons.  At one point in frustration he cut off part of his ear to make a statement about friendship.

When looking at those later paintings, the Writer of the article titled “Choose Life” in the journal Weavings [Volume 28, Number 2] was struck not with darkness but light.  She was struck with his resilience as he painted scenes with colors that seemed to celebrate all that is good.  What kept him alive?  What allowed him to endure as long as he did, producing painting after painting, only one of which sold during his lifetime?

He painted Starry Night while at the Asylum.  He proclaimed, “For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.”

Starry Night

In the article from Weavings, Sister Suzanne Mayer writes:

“In a probing exploration entitled ‘Van Gogh and God’ Cliff Edwards points to a sense of the divine that held the tormented Dutch painter close to the fire of life no matter what dismal circumstances surrounded him.  He offers van Gogh’s in-depth theology of an idiomorphic God, a God who like van Gogh is an artist.  The artist God, like van Gogh himself, fails in his creations, yet continues to produce.”

I am fascinated by the thought that God continues creating even though what has been created often fails to reflect God’s creative intentions.  It encourages me to not to give up trying in the face of recurring failures to realize my intentions.

A friend told me about the sermon he preached on Christmas Eve.  In that sermon he referred to this story:   

Robert Lewis Stevenson, best known for his adventure story Treasure Island, was in poor health during much of his childhood and youth. One night his nurse found him with his nose pressed against the frosty pane of his bedroom window. “Child, come away from there. You’ll catch your death of cold,” she fussed.

But young Robert wouldn’t budge. He sat, mesmerized, as he watched an old lamplighter slowly working his way through the black night, lighting each street lamp along his route. Pointing, Robert exclaimed, “See; look there; there’s a man poking holes in the darkness.”

In the face of my recurring failures to realize my good intentions, in the face of societal evils that seem hopelessly entrenched, I am, we are free to at least poke holes in the darkness.

Who cares?  The second discovery, the insight that popped into my mind last Friday morning was triggered to some extent by a friend’s grieving caused by a complex set of circumstances, circumstances not entirely unlike mine after retiring and then losing Mary Ann.  One of the ways I dealt with the pain of losing Mary Ann was to force myself to venture out to be with other people in social settings.  My reasoning was that I needed to learn how to be normal again.  I needed to be with people who neither knew nor cared that my world had just been completely destroyed.  Those settings forced me to pretend to be okay.   I needed to pretend because I wasn’t okay.  I needed to learn how to be okay again.  The setting and the people around me forced me to learn faster than would have happened if I had sat at home waiting to become okay first, before venturing out.

What dawned on me as I thought about this on Friday was that a part of my healing was nurtured by people who didn’t care.  That they didn’t care was a gift to me.  Don’t  misunderstand.  There were lots of people who were kind and caring.  But had everyone I encountered been understanding and caring, encouraging me to share my grief with them, comforting me, the healing would have come much more slowly.   The fact that there were people who cared, who gave me permission to grieve long and hard without judgment, provided the balance needed to be able to manage being with people who didn’t care.  Even those who cared the most couldn’t make the pain go away.   It was important for me to recognize that the pain could not be carried for me, endured for me by anyone else no matter how much they cared or how much they loved me.  The pain was mine and mine alone.  Others had their own pain to deal with, my children, their spouses and children, those who had come to love Mary Ann as Friend.

One of the benefits of spending over a year with a Hospice Support group was that we could talk about our pain, listen to others talk about theirs long after anyone else cared to listen.  The pain and the grief aren’t done by the time the people around us are done listening to us talk about it.  Yes, it helps to have a place where we can express the pain openly and without judgment, but it also helps to have places where the pain needs not to be expressed openly, places where we have to be okay whether we actually are or not.

When I traveled to New Zealand and Australia by myself for two months a little more than a half year after she died, I had to be okay.  I often mentioned to those I met that my wife had died a few months earlier.  There was usually a moment or two of thoughtful compassion from them.  After that, we got on with whatever was happening at the moment.  We each had a history that shaped us up to the point of our encounter.  The history we were making was at the center of our time together.  The grieving I did on that trip happened during in private moments, but the public time was at least as healing.

The story about making holes in the darkness also fits the grief journey.  There is nothing that can make the darkness of grief go away in an instant, at least nothing that allows for long term survival and ultimately health and wholeness.   As I look back it seems that the journey was about trying to poke holes in the darkness so the light could peek though.  It wasn’t so much that I chose life as it was that I rediscovered it.

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The Call to Live

Both are absolutely accurate.  There were two weddings and two roles.

First of all, it was such a wonderful experience to be a part of the wedding at which I officiated Saturday in Oklahoma City.  The bride was one of my favorite Youth from the parish I served in the OKC area for nine years between 1987 and 1996.  She has a quick wit and a good heart (as well as being extremely pretty – a comment that will embarrass her).  She and her husband bring a total of three young boys to the family.  It is a privilege to be a part of two people’s lives as they move into such an important time in their lives.  We spent some time together a few weeks ago talking about their relationship and the dynamics of their personalities that are likely to impact that relationship.  We talked about the challenges of…

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The concert was almost beyond description in how wonderfully they sang and played.  I had in my mind when I drove over to KC to hear Granddaughter Chloe sing in the University of Missouri, Kansas City’s [UMKC] Children’s Choir that they would sing, along with another small choir of high school girls also sponsored by UMKC.  When I arrived, a Trombone Ensemble was playing Christmas music from the balcony of the church.  That was followed by the first piece, an unusual but very effective arrangement of “Carol of the Bells” played by the church’s (Atonement Lutheran) very large and accomplished Handbell choir.  Then began an evening filled with an array of classical and contemporary pieces of Christmas music, by a variety of choirs and instrumentalists from the Conservatory of Music at UMKC.  After putting together all the singers in the various choirs and the instrumentalists, there appeared to be well over a hundred performers. 

There were classical pieces from many periods of music, sometimes with choirs singing back and forth between stage area and balcony.  Chloe’s choir sang one song in German and another in French.  They did a great job.  There were more contemporary arrangements of some of the Carols.  The audience was invited to sing a couple of the familiar Carols. 

They were so skilled and well directed that it was possible to simply lose myself in the music, drinking it in, watching the performers, celebrating the marvelous impact of the sounds and visuals (the faces of the perfomers).  Son Micah put his arm around my shoulder and reminded me of my years of singing in choirs.  From the time I was about 14 until I graduated from the Seminary at 26, my life was all about singing in choirs.  I had the joy of serving as President and Student Conductor of five of those choirs spread over my high school and college (pre-seminary) years.  There were many choir tours including a three week tour to England, Holland, Germany, Austria and Switzerland.  There was the chant choir that rehearsed regularly and sang at chapel weekly during the three years on site (other than the Internship year) at the Seminary.  Even after that there were two or three years while serving a parish that I sang in a semi-professional choir called Schola Cantorum, a choir sponsored by the American Guild of Organists’ Chapter in Kansas City.

I was lost in the music until the choirs all gathered together to sing the last three pieces.  Of course, with so many voices they filled the room with sound when they sang, “Do You Hear What I Hear.”  For some reason, that is when it hit me how much Mary Ann would have loved being there, hearing the music, seeing Chloe sing.  I held it together with great difficulty.  Then came the all the college age singers, all eighty or hundred of them, along with a brass ensemble, and organ performing together doing “Joy to the World.”   The sound was overwhelming.  I could no longer keep it together.  The tears started streaming down my face and then there was the shuddering that happens when it finally breaks through.  I turned a bit away from the kids and tried to keep from being noticeable to anyone around me.  It is terribly hard to accept that she is gone from here.  I hate that she was not there to experience it.  I can’t change what has happened.  I did not lose myself in the grief.  The tears were appropriate, and in a way, they honored her.  Since crying has not been a part of my usual expression of emotions, when they do come, it is only when I can no longer keep them in check.   I work especially hard at keeping them under control when I am in public. 

We ran into Bob and Pat, a couple from my first Parish in the Kansas City area.  They were there since it was a fund-raiser for Harvester’s Food Bank that serves tens of thousands of folks in need of food through the many agencies who obtain that food from Harvester’s.  What makes that dimension of the evening especially meaningful to me is that in the mid-1970’s, it was a couple of folks from the congregation of which I was a pastor who started Harvester’s.  One of them, Jerry, had a cold storage company and the other, Bob, was a sales manager for Libby foods.  It was just a dream at first.  It has now grown beyond anyone’s imagination.  I recalled with Bob, one time when our congegation picked up windfall apples for Harvesters.  I drove a truck that could carry 20,ooo pounds.  No, we did not gather than many apples, but the truck was so large that when I drove it to the church, I was stopped by the police.  There were no trucks allowed on the Kansas side of State Line road.  I guess I would have been all right if I had been driving north, in the lane that was on the Missouri side of the mid-line.   When I explained what I was doing, the police officers allowed me to continue the few blocks to the church without issuing me a ticket. 

Last night was an evening I won’t soon forget.  It is quite a ride I am on.  Sometimes it just takes my breath away.

There were eight of us.  Mary Ann left and there were seven.  Now there are six.  Today Marlene ended her journey here with us.  The eight of us met in 1972 when we moved to Prairie Village, Kansas, and a male child was born in each household.  Each of us also had an older girl.  We spent the next fifteen years in the same congregation with lots of folks who became friends.  Three couples had pretty much grown up together and all became fast friends at college.  As time went by, Mary Ann and I were sort of adopted into the group.  A couple of times we vacationed together, even after we had move to Oklahoma City.  The relationship continued through the nine years in Oklahoma and the last fifteen years here.   

While Charlie and their Daughter and Son and families are the hardest hit and own the grief at Marlene’s departure, we were close enough, like family, that the place where the grief and sadness live in me has stirred.  Bad planning on my part combined with Friday afternoon traffic resulted in my missing the time at the hospital when the life support was removed.  I did make it to the house to spend just a few minutes with Charlie, his Daughter and Son-in-Law.

Marlene and Charlie went to Mayo Clinic fourteen years ago and heard the diagnosis and prognosis, “Go home and get relationships in order, make peace with God.  Marlene will live two to five years before the ALS takes her.”  That was fourteen years ago!  She died today.  Charlie and I observed today that we both had married people with powerful strength of will.  From our vantage point it sometimes seemed like stubbornness.  Both of them defied the odds and lived with dignity far beyond reason given the ravages of their diseases. 

A little over two years ago, I decided to retire to take care of Mary Ann full time.  In the letter to the Congregation, I quoted an email Charlie sent me when I first announced my decision.  About two years earlier, Charlie had retired to part time work to take care of Marlene.  Charlie wrote:

“I’m pleased to hear that you have reached your decision. The decision you faced was not “if” but “when”. Now that you have come to the conclusion that June 30 will be the date, you will have time to acclimate and I’m confident that over time you will become more comfortable with your decision to put family first. Keep in mind that serving as a full time caretaker for Mary Ann is not only a duty, but an honor – no one else knows her as well as you and no one else could do a better job. We pray that you will find your new role fulfilling.” 

As Charlie predicted, I did find that role fulfilling.  It was truly an honor.   I have no doubt that it is so for Charlie, as it is for me, we would chose to do it again without a moment’s hesitation. 

I discovered decades ago that when a loss comes, it is compounded by any earlier significant losses.  The losses accumulate.  As I drove over in hopes of making it to the hospital in time, the feelings stirred and the deep sadness was exposed.  At some level, I will be dealing with my own grief as Charlie and his family deal with theirs. 

All of us who have known Marlene recognize what  a remarkable person she has been.  Not only did she deal with her disease without complaint, but she continued to focus on others.  She always voiced much concern for Mary Ann and me in any interaction.  She turned away from herself and toward others.  As Charlie noted in our conversation, it is probably one reason that she stayed so strong so long. 

Mary Ann and Marlene shared a perception of their respective realities.  Neither of them accepted the fact that they were sick.  They lived as if there was nothing wrong with them.  Now they are both done with their battle here.  They are fine.  We are not.

Monday morning will be the funeral.  It will be a hard day for all of us.

This afternoon, I went to see Manheim Steamroller’s Christmas Tour performance at the Performing Arts Center here in town.  The Season of Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Years’s is already beginning.  The Christmas Music is arranged in accord with their usual stylized form of light jazz/New Age music. 

It is the first Christmas activity in the new configuration of this season of the year, without Mary Ann.  I already don’t like it, but that is just the way it is.  The performance made use of every imagineable sort of sound that can be produced by both unplugged and electronic instruments.  The volume was powerful but not painful.  The visuals on the screen behind the performers sometimes included actors and dancers dressed in period costumes providing a visual story to go along with the music being played.  Sometimes it was hard to tell what were previously recorded sounds and what was coming from the people on the stage.  They were perfectly coordinated. 

Since music has the ability to bypass my defenses, for a time it was pretty emotional.  I let the feelings have there way, but they never broke through to water running down my face — close , but not quite.  I can tell that this season will just not be very easy to negotiate.  I remember that it was already pretty tough last Christmas.  In fact, since retirement, there has been a part of me that just wished we could skip December and go right into January. 

It was helpful that after the concert there was a gathering of the folks from the Hospice Grief Support Group at the home of one of the members.  While we did not talk about the challenges of dealing with the holidays since it was just a social get-together, being around folks who are in similar circumstances was comforting.  Going to an empty house after the concert would have been pretty difficult.  

Before the Parkinson’s moved into the later stages, Mary Ann was a master at doing Christmas.  She had to learn to manage without much help from me since it was the busiest time of the year as a Pastor.  She started buying gifts some time early in September.  By the middle of November, she already had a full complement of gifts.  In fact, sometimes she would forget all that she had gotten and keep getting presents after there were already plenty in the closet.  Every once in a while, we had to do an inventory of presents to be sure that the numbers and size balanced out for each of the Kids and Grandchildren. 

I was a spoiled sport relative to outdoor decorations.  She would have loved them, but I just never could get into it since there was so much going on at work (at least that was my excuse).  She always did a nice job decorating the inside of the house.  Her Christmas quilt was always hung in our bedroom, replacing the one with the basket pattern in each block.  The Manger Scene came out with the wise men placed away from the manger until Epiphany came. 

We would often get a Charlie Brown Christmas tree (the Kids always made fun of the trees we picked out).  In early years we went out and cut it down.  Then later we got trees from a Christmas Tree lot (still Charlie Brown trees).  Only in recent years did we finally get an artificial Christmas Tree.  Then came the ornaments, an eclectic variety.  Some years there was a theme in terms of color, but most often there was a wonderful variety of styles and sizes and shapes.  There is the sleigh that my Grandfather made — the cards go in that. 

She loved Christmas so much.  Last year was difficult since she had started the decline.  We were pretty limited in what we could do.  We did manage to get the tree up.  I don’t know yet what I will do this year.  It is hard to imagine bringing the tree up from the storage room, putting it together and decorating it.  I can understand why those who have lost a Loved One struggle so at this time of the year.  So much of what usually is done seems sort of pointless.  The center of the season, the core message remains powerful and meaningful.  The decorations are pretty, but they are not the center.  

The goal will be to focus on the unconditional love of our Creator and the new life offered through the One who joined us in our human journey bringing hope in the face of whatever comes.

I guess I feel pretty blessed.  This has been “All Saints’ Day” with the tradition of reading the names aloud in the service.  Mary Ann’s name was not read.  None of the names were.  There was a list in the Service Bulletin. but no reading.   I am sure her name was read in the congregation I served the last twelve years of my ministry, but I was not at home and could not attend that service. 

I am currently in Kentucky visiting Daughter Lisa, Denis and Granddaughters.  I knew that Lisa had requested that Mary Ann’s name be included on All Saints’ Sunday here, and my experience in the past concerning the tradition resulted in the expectation that it would be read aloud.  I felt emotionally vulnerable and expected to be impacted by the reading.  While I was not sure I was ready to hear it, I was certainly disappointed when it I did not hear it. 

I really like how the worship is conducted here in Lisa and Denis’s congregation. The music is wonderful.  Pianist Todd has improvisational skills combined with an obvious reverence that results in a welcoming tone throughout the service.  I like the Pastor, appreciate the preaching.  I just missed the reading of the names aloud.  It was a sad morning in that regard.  On the other side of it, Granddaughter Ashlyn was in a hugging mode.  She kept her Grandpa close in church.  She was sitting next to me and sang out clearly on the songs.  She and Granddaughter Abigail have perfect intonation when they sing.   Both Ashlyn and Abigail drew pictures for me during church.  I realize that I need to focus on life now, but the grieving and remembering are still an important part of my reality.

I remembered one All Saints’ Day when after the service a parent asked why their daughter who had died early that year was not included.  I was horrified that it had not gotten in since I had done the funeral.  I was able to discover the reason it wasn’t automatically on the list to be read.  The pattern for doing statistics for our national church body demands a certain way of recording folks.  The usual process used to obtain the names for the list did not work in her case.  It should have been caught and included.  I apologized, but it couldn’t undo the damage.  I now understand more fully the impact of not hearing read the name of someone loved deeply and lost in death. 

It is now Monday evening and I have returned home.  The feelings of sadness hung around yesterday (Sunday) and throughout most of the day today as I traveled.  It is always hard to say goodbye when coming to the end of a visit with family, especially the Kids and Grandkids.  The sadness is, of course, missing Mary Ann.  Lot’s of things brought her to mind.  It is always interesting to analyze the path from some random thought through the mental twists and turns that lead to from whatever the first thought was to missing Mary Ann. 

The sadness is also just feeling sorry for myself.  I have loved solitude for so long that it is hard to admit how much I don’t like being alone now.  Mary Ann was not at all verbal, especially in the last few years.   She did, however, have a strong presence.  She was in the car when we traveled, with needs that had to be met.  She was at home when I came home from wherever.  Her needs filled our lives with activity.  I was by myself in the car for nine or ten hours.  I came home to an empty house.  It is hard to make sense of this new reality, to find meaning and purpose in life without someone else with whom to share that life.  I recognize how pitiful this sounds, since there are people by the tens of millions who live by themselves and have fulfilling and meaningful lives.   I will get there eventually.  There are lots of times when I am on course to wholeness.  There are just times like these when the sadness hangs on for a while. 

Tomorrow is a very full day.  Hopefully, there will be little time for the sadness.   Focusing on immediate tasks and the needs of others helps diminish the power of the sadness, allowing joy to return.

It is hard to know where you are if you have no map.  Actually, there is no map.  More correctly, there are maps, but none of them can tell me where I am.  There are all sorts of descriptions of how the grieving process goes.  Some of them, most of them are useful in helping find a vocabulary for talking about grief.  None of them provides an accurate map of where the grief is going, when junctions come, what ways to go when they do, what the destination looks like and where the one grieving is in relationship to it, whatever it looks like. 

There are studies that reveal what people have said about how they feel at certain points in their grief journeys.  No matter how many studies are done, or how large the pool of subjects is, there is no way to predict how any particular person will move through the grieving process.  The studies can provide the average time for this or that, the way the average person who is grieving experiences each step in the process.  Have you ever noticed how unusual it is for the high temperature and the low temperature for a given day to perfectly match the average temps for that day?  It would be pretty remarkable to find someone exactly average in height, weight, hair color, eye color, were all the residents of the US to be included in the pool from which the averages were detemined. 

The grief process is unique to each particular person who is grieving.  The last few days have been puzzling.  There have been times I have felt very good, a whole person again.  There have been times I have felt very much alone, not whole at all, missing Mary Ann terribly.  I remember when Mary Ann and I were trying to manage all the challenges of medications and side effects, the roller coaster ride of daily, hourly, changes.  It became clear that Mary Ann was living right on the margin between being functional and being non-functional.  It took very little to slip from one to the other.   The grieving process, especially early on, is very much like that.  Grief and healing are the shoulders on either side of the road.  It doesn’t take much to drift on to one shoulder or the other.

One of the challenges of caregiving was figuring out where we were in our journey.  We knew where it ultimately would lead, but there were no markers telling us where we were in relationship to that destination.  That was part of the reason that we lived in denial.  It wasn’t so much denial as it was having no clear roadsigns telling us how far we had to go yet. 

If you read the posts that I wrote during the last year and a half of the battle with Mary Ann’s Parkinson’s and the Parkinson’s Disease Dementia you will see three words or phrases used very often.  One is “Margin” as described above.  Another is “Threshhold,” and the third is “New Normal.”  Those words fit how we lived during the toughest years, and they fit the process of going through the grief.

As we walked that narrow margin between functionality and the lack of functionality, there were theshholds that we crossed from one level to another, most often to less functionality.  When that happened, we would have to locate the new normal.  The difficulty in dealing with crossing a threshhold to the new normal is that there was no map showing us where we were on the road.  There were no signs, no markers revealing that a threshhold was coming or that we were crossing it.  The only way we could tell if a threshhold had been crossed was if we looked back long enough to conclude that there would be no return to the former functionality.  We could only identify the threshhold after we crossed it.  Once we recognized it had been crossed, we could get on with the task of identifying and accepting the new normal.  Once that was done, we could then focus our time on accommodating to that new normal — functioning as well as possible in our new location, new normal.

This weekend has brought those three words and phrases into this journey of healing that I am on.  I am moving along a narrow margin bounded by grief and healing.  There seem to have been some threshholds traversed along the way.  I could not see them coming; they were not obvious when I was crossing them.   There were no markers or signs that said, this is where you are.  I have identified after the fact, transitions from one level of functionality to another.  My code language for good health is “wholeness.”  I don’t really know what that destination looks like or if it is even a destination rather than a way to think about the journey. 

It is hard to identify a new normal, in this journey toward healing.  There are no reference points.  Studies can describe pieces of the truth about such a journey, but no one is average enough to fit the descriptions perfectly.  I have to say, that looking back from where I am now, it seems to me that the journey I am on is one of healing.  Healing is seldom free from pain.  I have first hand knowledge of that truth as the saddle sore (my riding trophy) heals slowly.  The pain of grief remains readily accessible.  It is now no longer disabling pain, but pain nonetheless. 

Those of you who read this need to know that what I reveal here about the grief does not shape how I function when I am with other people.  Whenever, whatever threshholds have been crossed, the normal in which I am now living allows me to enjoy other people, laugh and celebrate, enjoy the uniqueness of friends, acquaintances and strangers.  The grief is near, but I remain on the journey to healing.